I had been told since I arrived here that the Polo is famous in BA, and a must see. The Argentinian Open Championship was in progress right here in Palermo, and it was something I fully intended to do one weekend but, picturing a hot, dry, dusty polo field, and considering the hot weather, I continued to put it off.
I was talking to a friend, Roxana, one Saturday evening, and she told me that it was the last weekend before the final the following weekend, and that it was really something I should do while in BA. She also offered to put me in touch with a friend of hers, Miguel, who is a Polo fanatic and was going the next day. I was convinced, and committed myself to getting there on the Sunday.
For some reason, after searching on the internet, I got the times wrong and arrived at the ground at 11 am, thinking I had missed the beginning of the first game at 10 am. Well, it turned out that the first game didn’t actually start until 2 pm and gates would not open until 1 pm.
Luckily, the Polo fields are directly in front of BA’s racecourse, the beautiful and historical Hipodromo. I took a walk around the beautifully kept grounds, and sat in a lovely cafe for lunch and a coffee while reading (to the best of my ability) the newspaper. I also made contact with Miguel, who was not arriving until the second game and we arranged to meet at the end.
I headed over to the ground and quickly learnt that my earlier assumptions had been completely incorrect. Unlike any polo I’ve ever been to in Australia, the grounds are really well kept with fixed buildings in place and good facilities. There were a number of classy demountables set up, some containing information on polo-related subjects, others as meeting and entertaining points for sponsor companies and the teams, and a large store “La Martina“, a popular brand of polo apparel. There was also a large Stella Artois bar with a replica trojan horse, in reference to a recent marketing campaign here, and a big Chandon champagne bar/restaurant. It was only just starting to fill up but the atmosphere was already amazing.
After a quick look around, I headed over to the field where the first game was to be played. It was a stinking hot day, and I was lucky enough to find a space for one in the shade on the concrete bleachers. The game was in progress, and I was fortunate enough to have a knowledgeable Argentine next to me who explained the status of the teams and some of the things that were going on. Given the late stage of the Open, the game was actually meaningless to the outcome of the Championship, but the crowd was still enthusiastic and passionate.
For the second game, I transferred to the larger stadium where I had an undesignated seat in the bleachers. I had been warned that there was no shade in the main stand and I had my hat on, but the sun was relentless. After a couple of chukkas, I decided to take a little walk to get some relief from the sun, and as I was walking in the shade, I saw a woman who had pulled up a chair from a nearby icecream stand and was sitting in the shade under the bleachers. I thought it was a great idea, and did the same, ending up with an uninterrupted eye-level view of the game in a shady spot with a nice breeze! The only hazard was falling bottles from the stands above, but I managed to get through unscathed.
This game was the semi-final, and the level of skill was incredible, both of the horses and the players. I was fixated! It was a close game, and I seemed to be picking up the rules, which I’ve somehow managed to miss when I’ve attended the polo in Australia! (Much like the games there really!)
The horses are obviously a huge part of this game, and are well treated and respected. It was great to see them thundering past at eye-level, either on the field, or off the field as they were changed out and ridden back to their shady enclosure for a well-earned rest. One of the booklets I was handed at the gate was completely dedicated to the horses and their breeding, listing every horse playing in the Open and their lineage, with the booklet containing related advertisements regarding artificial insemination and even cloning of champions! The scoreboard regularly shows which player is riding which horse, and posts the horses names at each change, and there is even a Best Horse of the Championship each year, which becomes super important in the breeding.
At the end of the game, I somehow managed to locate Miguel and his friend, Vicky at the designated meeting point. Miguel was ecstatic because it was his team, Ellerstina (pronounced here as “Esherstina”) that had won and would play in the final the following week. Vicky’s team, La Dolfina, had already earned their place in the final, so they were both happy about the coming week.
We made our way through the crowd and managed to get close to where the winning team was celebrating, before heading back to the Chandon bar to share a bottle of champagne. The sun had dropped a bit and there was a slight cooling breeze, there was music playing and people everywhere outside the bars, and the atmosphere had gone from amazing to truly electric.
I didn’t know anyone, but Miguel started pointing people out to me who were apparently famous, and I ended up having my photo taken with some people I have since had to google! One was a male Argentinian model who I subsequently saw on three billboards on the trip home alone, and one was the Captain of the winning team who is reportedly one of the best players in the world, Facundo Pieres.
We stayed for a while, dancing a little, enjoying the music, the champagne and the atmosphere, and I left determined to jump online the next morning and secure my ticket for the final.
I managed to do so, and looked forward in anticipation to the following Saturday coming around. During the week, I also made contact with a “friend of a friend” from Melbourne, Cheryl, and arranged to meet her after the game.
This time, I had a designated seat not too far from Miguel and Vicky’s season seats and, being only one game in the afternoon, there was no need to arrive too early. I already had my team, deciding to follow Ellerstina who I’d seen win the week before. It was another hot day, though not quite as bad as the week before, and I managed to persevere in my seat without escaping under the bleachers! The game was incredible, with the skill level just amazing, and I didn’t want to miss a thing! I couldn’t believe some of the shots, including some calculated shots between the player’s own horse’s legs to reach team mates on the other side. The horses were incredible too, and you could tell they were enthusiastic and loving the chase! I quickly decided that Facundo was my favourite player and his skills were particularly good (nothing to do with his looks of course!), at times bouncing the ball off the mallet several times before hitting it onwards. The crowd loved him too, calling out his shortened name “Facu”, which you have to be careful with in English!
The game was close, but Ellerstina brought it home 12-10 after having a particularly successful 5th chukka following the break. I caught up with Miguel, Vicky and Cheryl after the game, and we made our way over to the winners podium where we saw numerous awards handed out, but most importantly, the Championship Cup, the Best Player of the Championship (Facu of course), and the Best Horse of the Championship. In true form, Miguel managed to get our photo taken with someone famous, this time a hot international Polo Ralph Lauren model.
We made our way to the Chandon bar where the group grew as Miguel and Vicky met up with other friends. It was another evening of great company, refreshing champagne, a buzzing atmosphere, and a beautiful climate. I’m hooked, and I think future trips back to BA will have to be organised around the polo!